An hour before my Zoom interview with the US food writer and TV presenter Ina Garten is due to start, an email arrives from her PR: “Ina’s electricity has gone down. Can we push back to tomorrow?” Even a domestic goddess can be rendered powerless by a utility company.
But then, Garten’s mere-mortal credentials have always been her USP. While her TV show, Barefoot Contessa, may be the winner of multiple Emmys and James Beard Awards (along with her bestselling cookbooks), her enduring popularity is down to her — and her food’s — uncheffy, unstuffy accessibility.
She doesn’t do foams or “oyster ice cream”, is all for using shortcuts and store-bought ingredients, and thinks entertaining should be kept as simple as possible.
“You know, when I invite people [over], sometimes I’ll just get a pizza from a local Italian and make a big Caesar salad,” she tells me when we do indeed meet on Zoom the following day. (She arrived on screen, bang on time, looking just as she does on TV: blue shirt, brown hair, big smile.) “In fact, I think people have less fun if you’ve made an enormously complicated meal, because you’re exhausted and that makes them feel uncomfortable.”
It’s two days after the US election. Garten is a former Washington insider: after studying for an MBA, she worked at the White House in her mid-twenties under Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter “on nuclear energy policy, of all things”. The election was on her mind when she concocted her latest cookbook Modern Comfort Food, published in October. “I knew the election was going to be contentious, but it’s been really nasty, oh my God,” she says. “I think it’s going to come out OK, but I’m not allowing myself to celebrate anything. Either you believe in our system or you don’t.”
Professionally speaking, Garten, 72, had had enough of Washington by the time she was 30. “There was one thing I was working on . . . and we kept taking it out of the budget, and Congress would put it back in, and then we would take it out, and they would put it back in,” she says. “After about four years of this, I thought, ‘I’m done.’” By then, she had taught herself to cook and discovered that food was her second great passion in life. (Her husband Jeffrey, a Yale School of Management dean emeritus whom she met at 15 and married at 20, is, as all Ina fans know, her first.)
Then she saw a property ad, by chance, in The New York Times for a speciality food store in Westhampton, Long Island, called Barefoot Contessa. She drove out there, made an offer and became its new owner the next day. And so began a long and lucrative career in food. After the store — which she relocated to East Hampton, where the Gartens now live, and ran for 20 years — came the cookbooks and, from 2002 onwards, the TV shows (named after the store). A recent estimate put her net worth at about $60m.
During this long and agonising year, however, Garten has taken on a new culinary role — that of comfort-food provider-in-chief. In March, as much of the US moved into lockdown, emails flooded in from fans faced with cupboards full of panic-buys that they had no idea what to do with. In response, she posted a picture of her (immaculate) larder on Instagram (2.9 million followers and counting), captioned: “I know so many of you are very anxious . . . I am, too. The one thing we CAN do, though, is cook for the people we love . . . Tell me what’s in your pantry and I’ll think of recipes for you to make!” The response, she says, was “overwhelming”.
For two months, Garten went to work, cooking, posting, advising and reassuring. “Everyone seems to have lentils in their pantry and not enough recipes to use them all,” read an early post that shared an updated Stewed Tomatoes and Lentils recipe. Subsequent tips suggested everything from Weeknight Bolognese (“You can even sauté mushrooms instead of beef”) to Ramen Chicken Noodle Soup. “Make Irish Soda Bread! No yeast OR kneading required!” read another.
“At first, I didn’t know if I could be the person who could answer all their questions but as I got into it, I realised I could,” she says. “It made me feel very connected with people and it gave me order and purpose each day.”
She eventually had to ease up: “I still had to work on the book and the TV shows, so by the middle of May, I was in bed with the covers over my head, saying, ‘I can’t do this any more.’” She allowed herself the occasional take-out meal — and found a way to see friends. “I bought some outdoor furniture and heaters so we could invite people over, and that’s made all the difference in the world.”
Talk of patio heaters — “I’ll go back to being responsible when this moment is over” — takes us on to the environment. How does she feel about the damage caused by the food industry through intensive farming and complex supply chains? “Increasingly, I try and base menus on what’s in season and what’s around,” she replies. “You get better ingredients if they haven’t been shipped in from far away — and a fresher baguette if you buy from a local bakery.”
Does she think she could live on a plant-based diet, I ask with slight trepidation. Could she ever turn Jeffrey — whose love for any dish cooked by his wife, but particularly Friday-night dinners involving chicken, is frequently captured on camera — into a vegetarian? “I don’t think so,” she chuckles. “But I have to say we’re going towards less red meat than before, so that’s good.”
The hospitality industry has been hit hard by the pandemic and Garten has friends who run restaurants. “It’s nothing short of devastating,” she says. “As there’s no national policy, it’s impossible to have any kind of organised response. I think the places that are surviving are the ones that really shifted gears very quickly into sending food out. But I don’t know what the impact is on them financially.”
But then, hasn’t catering always been a rough old business? Don’t you have to be a “tough muffin”, as she once put it, to survive? “Did I really say that? Oh my goodness,” she says, slightly thrown. “But . . . you know, I don’t think I’m tough, I think I’m clear. I’m very focused . . . I kind of have this philosophy that either you’re on my train or you’re off. If you have the same standards I do, I want you close. But if you’re lazy, and you don’t get what I’m doing, then I don’t want you anywhere near me.”
And with that, our conversation draws to a close. It’s Friday, after all, and there’s probably a chicken in the fridge that needs her attention. We wave goodbye and I picture her bustling around her kitchen, testing recipes, posting ideas on Instagram and preparing a simple but comforting dinner for Jeffrey — power cuts notwithstanding.
“Modern Comfort Food” is published by Random House, £25. The latest season of “Barefoot Contessa” is showing on Food Network
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